Even as the US is on track to spend a trillion dollars — a thousand billion — for a new generation of nuclear weaponsand their delivery systems, there is encouraging news from the disarmament movement.
In March, a combination of conscientious university professors, student researchers, local peace activists and organizers won the unanimous support of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Council to divest the city’s pension funds and other investments from corporations and financial institutions involved in the production of nuclear weapons. We hope and expect that this will inspire other communities, universities, religious denominations and other institutions to follow suit, helping to further stigmatize preparations for nuclear war in this increasingly dangerous time.
A unanimous vote! And we’re talking about $1 billion, which is enough to make mutual funds, banks and even hedge funds to take note.
And like almost any other meaningful initiative, it began with a small group of people with a vision.
For several years, I’ve wondered how and where we could find the resources to launch a meaningful Don’t Bank on the Bomb (DBTB) campaign in the United States. Don’t Bank on the Bomb is an initiative of PAX, a Catholic peace organization in the Netherlands. DBTB compiles an annual report of every financial institution involved in manufacturing nuclear weapons and their components, and use the report to encourage people, communities, organizations and institutions to withdraw their investments — including our pension funds and bank accounts — fromthese companies.
Divestment may not directly result in creating a nuclear weapons-free world or bring an end to these immoralweapons producers’ super profits and drive them out of business. But it does provide a way for organizers to engage and educate millions of people about the enduring and increasing dangers of nuclear weapons. The popular education needed to win local DBTB victories contributes to further stigmatizing nuclear weapons, thus contributing to growing political pressure for disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons.
How did we do it?
Last fall, MIT Professor Max Tegmark, a world-class physicist, invited a number of people to his home to talk about disarmament. We were a rare combination of disarmament-oriented university scientists, technologically nimble students, and even some from elite and conservative business schools, leading disarmament organizers and a few well-heeled potential funders. Max described the resources and achievements of his Future of Life Institute. He took us through his worst nightmares of nuclear war, including the potential devastation of a single electro-magnetic pulse detonation. Then, via Skype, he gave the floor to Susi Snyder, who leads Don’t Bank on the Bomb in Amsterdam, toexplain what they do.
In the months that followed, the students and the Future of Life staff researched all of the City of Cambridge’s investments. They created a wonderful website with information about nuclear weapons producers, resources about the dangers of nuclear war, the possibilities of reducing these dangers and a divestment app. They, along with long-time Cambridge activists, met with Cambridge’s progressive mayor, Denise Simmons, and other members of the CityCouncil, and prepared thedivestment resolution, which was considered and voted upon at the Council’s March 21 meeting.
This was done quite quietly, not raising the alarm among those in our community aligned with the military-industrial-congressional complex. Days before the council meeting, community activists sent emails to council members, explaining why we hoped they would vote for divestment. We prepared written testimonies to present to the Council during the public comment period, and we turned out as many people to testify as we could.
It was an unusual city council meeting. Led by Max Tegmark, who presented the council with a 200-page report on the city’s investments and alternative possibilities, long time activists, students and scientists gave short but heart-rending speeches about the human consequences of nuclear weapons; the histories of nuclear threats, accidents and miscalculations; the many delegations of atomic-bomb survivors and Japanese peace activists who have visited the city; the city’s role in helping to launch the nuclear weapons freeze movement in the 1980s; and its membership in Mayors for Peace, an international network of cities committed to working for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Most importantly, we stressed the urgent need to stop funding preparations for nuclear annihilation.
Then it was the city councilors’ turn to speak. One after another, even those who had seemed unresponsive to our testimonies, they spoke briefly in support of the resolution — even the conservatives on the council. To our surprise, the vote was unanimous! View the video of the City Council hearing.
How best to launch the resolution was the next challenge. With an initial goal of rekindling nuclear disarmament consciousness among MIT’s brilliant science, engineering and other students, Professors Tegmark and Jonathan King (who doubles as the chairperson of Massachusetts Peace Action’s nuclear disarmament working group) and other local movement leaders organized a major “Reducing the Dangers of Nuclear War” conference. It included a who’s who of leading analysts and disarmament advocates, including Alan Robock, who has done seminal research on climate change and “nuclear cooling”; former Secretary of Defense William Perry; Joe Cirincione of the Plowshares Fund; Susi Snyder of PAX; and others from the Boston area.
Bringing together activists from across New England, and as far as Washington, DC, and Seattle, the conference provided the ideal platform for Mayor Simmons to announce the divestment victory. She went on to say that she would be urging other mayors around the country to follow her example. And in plenary and workshop sessions, we discussed ways to take the campaign into other communities, and into religious denominations, universities and our friends and families, most of whom have bank accounts.
Days after the conference and announcement, we’re still processing the possibilities created by the conference and making plans to take the campaign to activists and communities across the country.
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Joseph Gerson is director of the American Friends Service Committee’s peace and economic justice program and co-convener of Peace and Planet.